WINSLOW — It began as a way for Alex Berard to earn some spending money and get free ice time. It’s now a passion that’s led him to some of the highest-level hockey around.
Berard, a 27-year-old from Winslow, had skates on his feet and a stick in his hand pretty much ever since he could walk. Rather than a stick and pads, though, he can be found wearing black, white and orange stripes, refereeing games throughout the Northeast.
“People thought I’d be good at it; I mean, a 10-year-old being able to get more ice time for free while getting paid for it? It sounded like a no-brainer,” Berard said. “I got into it, fell in love with it, and whether they were telling the truth or not, people said I was pretty good at it.”
They were, it turns out, telling the truth, something that’s evident in the way Berard has risen through the ranks in his 17 years as an official. The 2015 graduate of Winslow High School is now an official working men’s games for Hockey East, calling some of the biggest contests the region has to offer.
It began covering squirt games for Berard, who split his youth days playing the sport and officiating it. He then moved to higher-level youth hockey and, upon graduating from Winslow, began doing high school games and even some junior hockey and Division III games at Colby College.
A passion for officiating kept growing for Berard, who began seeking out bigger assignments. He spent time moving around the country, living in Texas and then Chicago refereeing United States Hockey League games before beginning his current stint with Hockey East this season.
“It just kind of turned into a passion from there, and as I got older, I was able to work the older age groups and keep moving up,” Berard said. “I was just very dedicated at the craft, I had a lot of mentors who were able to mentor me along the way, and thankfully, people weren’t too rough on me.”
In just his first month and a half as a Hockey East official, Berard has already called some major games, such as the highly anticipated series between Maine and then-No. 1 Boston College that saw the Black Bears earn a win and a tie. He also officiated a series between Vermont and Connecticut.
Being a Hockey East official, though a dream for Berard, is definitely no picnic. Hockey in the Northeast is known for its speed, and officials have to keep pace with some of the quickest skaters around while also keeping a close eye on the action. It takes, to put it lightly, a high level of physical fitness.
As to how Hockey East determines its officials? Well, there’s no hard-and-fast rule. Experience matters, but there’s no minimum number of years a referee must work at a lower level. To find officials, the conference even does some scouting in the same way a professional or college team might scout a prospect.
“I think a lot of people might be surprised how similar it is,” said Brian Smith, the associate commissioner for Hockey East. “From a general standpoint, we have a debrief with (officiating supervisor) Brian Murphy, and he talks about a list of officials to keep an eye on so that we know how the pipeline is looking.”
Although officiating Hockey East games is Berard’s only current job at the moment, he says it won’t be able to stay that way given the financial realities of the job. He’s dreaming of being an NHL official, though, and should that happen, a full-time officiating job would be a reality.
Yet officials, Berard said, don’t do this for the money; they do it for the players, the coaches, their fellow referees, the rink staff and everyone else with whom they have the privilege of working. They also do it for the atmospheres, such as the one last month between Maine and Boston College.
“That was an incredible experience,” Berard said. “I had so many family members there to support me, which was awesome, and the atmosphere there at the University of Maine was great. You couldn’t have asked for a better weekend, either; both teams were playing great, and the games were excellent.”
Networking, Berard said, has been the key factor in ascending to the heights he’s reached as an official. After enough of his mentors spoke highly of him, he was chosen to the officiating crew for a USA Hockey youth tournament in Michigan that served as a springboard to the junior ranks.
He’s also being noticed in Hockey East, where Smith said Murphy has given the circuit newcomer high praise thus far. It could be the next stepping stone in what’s already been a great career at a young age, but he could very well be a fixture in Orono and elsewhere in the conference for years to come.
“The dream for me has always been to be able to work professional hockey in any aspect, but not everyone gets fortunate enough to do that, so if it doesn’t happen, I’m very comfortable being in Hockey East,” Berard said. “It’s just a fantastic experience, and it’s a privilege to be able to do.”